Racing: Satellite beam aims at the side-streets: Greg Wood reports on plans to break the monopoly on broadcasts to betting shops

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OWNERS of satellite dishes who also spend time in betting shops may have noticed a puzzling disparity. While a domestic dish can offer channel after channel of soaps and sport in a multitude of languages, the large one on the local bookie's wall carries pictures from just one source: Satellite Information Services (SIS), official providers of racing coverage to all the nation's bookmakers.

After a decade in which the disciples of competition set out to drive monopolies into the sea, it is surprising that SIS has had the field to itself for so long, but now a rival is preparing to make the company fight for its revenue. The Satellite Racing Consortium is currently negotiating for broadcasting rights from the Racecourse Association, and could start live transmissions as early as September.

You might have to venture away from the High Street to see their version of events, however. While SIS will continue to supply the Big Three bookmakers (Ladbrokes, Coral and William Hill), SRC is aiming its service at the independent shops. Independents - small chains and one-shop businesses - make up more than half of the country's betting offices, but such is the grip of the Big Three on the prime trading sites than it is easy to miss the local independent, halfway down a side-street, sandwiched between a pet shop and a barber.

In recent years, the disenchantment of independent layers has grown in direct proportion to the increasing domination of the Big Three in the bookmaking industry, and their ill-feeling has now been focused on the SIS service via a new trade grouping, the British Betting Office Association.

Warwick Bartlett, chair of the BBOA, and the PR department of SIS have been engaged in bitter, if obscure, dispute over SIS's costs and service through the letters columns of the trade papers for several months. 'There are 5,400 independent shops in the country,' Bartlett says. 'We've got over 900 now and we've only been taking subscriptions since 1 November.' SRC would appear to have a ready market.

Whatever problems may stand in the new venture's way, they are unlikely to be technical ones. 'They wouldn't have to buy a new dish,' Peter Marshall, of SRC, says. 'The only thing that has to be changed in pure technology is the decoder, after that it's just a leasing job. The technical side of it is amazingly simple. With all the agreements (principally that with the RCA) in situ, three months after that we'll be up and running. If the meetings drag on through the summer than you'd be looking realistically at 1 January.'

Leasing studios from ITN will give the new service access to the latest news-gathering technology, while a studio-based approach would contrast with the constant stream of information on offer from SIS.

'We're looking at a highly imaginative tool,' Marshall says, 'but when you go into betting shops now and see how it's being used, it's just crass. If you were doing that 20 years ago you'd have maybe got away with it, but now we've also got customers who are sitting at home watching sophisticated Channel 4 Racing. A betting shop is serving a different function, but there is a balance to be struck.'

'We're not worried, but we always respect competition,' Terry Ellis, racing director of SIS, says. 'One of our priorities is not to become complacent and to respond to our subscribers, but likening the operation to the grocery trade, we are a supplier to everything from a corner shop to Tesco and you can't please all the people all the time.'

As the customers in a newly competitive market, this could be the one contest in which the punter cannot lose.

Comments